Saturday, September 25, 2010

Arts Academies

Recently, the neighboring Field Local School District started an arts academy for grades 3-6.  Being in the arts, on top of the news, and knowing a number of people in Field Schools, I had heard of the plans for some time.  After some difficulty and controversy, the new Falcon Arts Academy was established earlier this year and officially started classes this past August.  It is housed at the former Central Elementary School, which previously had housed the district's kindergarten classes.  Central is located adjacent to Field High School and Field Middle School right on the border of Brimfield and Suffield townships (so it is appropriately named!).  From what I was able to gather, this academy basically uses an arts-intensive approach to education.  What that means is that while students have more arts classes, the standard classes they do have (such as science, social studies, and math) have the arts integrated into how they're taught.  The examples I heard were things like using stained glass to learn geometric elements or writing songs to help learn science concepts.  Hearing about it definitely got me thinking about the whole concept, though initially I was hopeful for a potential job opening.  That turned out to be for naught as Field simply shifted their current teachers to the new school.

Anyway, I think most people assume that because I'm an arts person that I would naturally be a supporter of something like this.  To be totally honest, I've never been sold on arts academies or any kind of specialty school that segregates one interest from another.  My main experience with a separate arts academy was the same school Field used as a model: the Miller-South School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Akron.  I was a part of the Summit Choral Society's Junior Chorale program for a few years in the early 1990s and our rehearsals and many concerts were at Miller-South, which was converted to a 4-8 arts school from the old South High School.  I didn't know much about the school itself, but the kids I knew who went there largely had an arrogance about them.  It wasn't major, but it was there.  That's my first major problem with a separate school like that.  I think the unintended consequences are that you end up with some students who think of themselves as better than they are, but you also take away some of the most motivated and creative students and isolate them.  Another unintended consequence is the potential for a district to use an arts school as an excuse to reduce arts programs in other district schools.  While I've never actually seen that used as a reason, knowing how many non-arts people think, having an arts school and strong arts programs at the district's other schools would seem redundant and people would basically think if students want to be in the arts, they should go to the arts school.  Of course, an arts school can only handle so many students, so in the end, kids would be denied participation in arts programs or at least in the best arts programs simply due to numbers.

Before I go on, let me be very clear: this is not criticism exclusively of the Falcon Arts Academy.  No, this is my arguments against any kind of setup where students of one interest are taken out of their school and placed in a completely separate building, effectively segregating them.  Having an academy within a school, I think, is much better way to not only allow students to explore their interests on a higher level, but also allow those students to still be well-rounded while still giving other students the opportunity to take advantage of those programs but maybe on a lower level.  When I first found out about the Falcon Arts Academy, I started thinking about another specialty school I have experience with: the Maplewood Career Center.  Maplewood is a joint vocational school in Ravenna that serves students at 9 of Portage County's 11 high schools (excluding Kent Roosevelt and Aurora) as well as Mogadore in Summit County.  Students at Maplewood are all juniors and seniors who are enrolled in one of the schools several vocational programs.  Prior to coming to Maplewood, those students take care of most of their state-required classes needed to graduate.  Half of the day at Maplewood is spent in lab while the other half is spent in required courses such as English, Social Studies, and Math.  Students are still considered part of their home high schools and many participate in athletics, but for any other courses such as band, choir, art, or any other kind of elective, there is no chance as no such classes are offered at Maplewood.

Now, again, this should not be considered a criticism of Maplewood itself.  I have been very impressed by the faculty at Maplewood and enjoy being able to sub there; the format of having a completely separate vocational school is what I'm talking about.  Subbing in Kent, I have been able to see the other option: having vocational programs integrated into the school itself.

Roosevelt has somewhat of a hybrid system.  While there are some vocational programs students can take that will put them at another building for much, if not all, of the day, most of them are either available at the school itself or only require a few periods at another school.  Roosevelt is part of a compact with 5 other school districts that basically pools the vocational resources of each school and makes them available to students at the other compact members.  What this allows is for students to pursue a vocational tract, but as their schedule allows, they can still be part of things like choir, band, art, and other electives that may interest them plus their required classes are with fellow classmates as opposed to just vocational students like at Maplewood (though some program-specific classes like that are offered at Roosevelt).  It also keeps them as part of the school environment for much of the day rather than segregating them from their classmates all day, every day.

The more I think about it, the more I like the integrated approach over the separate building approach.  It lets arts students really explore their interest in the arts, but also can allow others to explore it without having to change schools; basically an all-or-nothing approach.  Indeed, even with the more arts-based approaches they are taking in the non-arts classes like science and social studies, if the methods are valid and work, they should be integrated into standard curriculum, not just restricted to "arts" students.  Students learn at different speeds and in different ways.  Not only should teachers be using a variety of approaches in presenting curriculum, but they should also be giving students a lot more options for projects and assignments to promote and develop creativity.   The same is true in any specialty area like math, science, vocational, etc.  The more these kinds of academies can be integrated into traditional schools, the more options it gives students not only in how much they learn but how fast.  But, on the flip side, I think having an arts academy is a step in the right direction; however, I'd much rather see many of its ideals better integrated into the regular curriculum to be most effective and reach as many students as possible.

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